'Diamantino' Review: A Surrealist Celebrity Romp About... Everything? [NYFF]

The New York Film Festival's Projections section is filled to the brim with the avant-garde, and this year's lineup is no exception. Tsai Ming-liang's Your Face is composed entirely of silent close-ups, while Albert Serra's Roi Soleil is an hour of King Louis XIV moaning and writhing. The former feels like a museum exhibit; the latter is a filmed version of one. You almost always know what kind of film to expect walking into a Projections screening — experimental fare that rarely feels like it would do well in the mainstream — which is why Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes' Diamantino is such an unbelievable blast. It's the kind of work that feels cobbled together from the most impulsive cinematic instincts, the ones where creators might ordinarily second-guess themselves on account of ideas being too silly, and it's charming as hell. As wildly entertaining as any blockbuster, schlocky as any B-movie and as politically enraged as your Twitter feed, Diamantino is a start-to-finish joy.

Led by the die-hard sincere performance of Carloto Cotta as Diamantino, the world's best and most famous footballer — a thinly veiled Christiano Ronaldo by way of Kanye West and... Gautam Buddha? — the film is so joyfully ludicrous that I almost want to you to stop reading until you've had a chance to see it for yourself. Then again, you should probably continue if you want to hear about the giant, fluffy puppies that grant Diamantino his exceptional skill, or Portugal's anti-E.U. propaganda campaign that hopes to clone the superstar eleven times and create the perfect team.

That's just the tip of the ice berg.

Diamantino, if one were to make futile attempts to classify it, is a sports movie, spy caper, pulp sci-fi, supernatural fantasy, refugee drama, father-son coming of age story and queer romance. Its divergent genres overlap in audacious ways that'll make your head spin; you wouldn't expect those last three categories to morph into one, let alone tenderly and tastefully, yet here we are. Its grainy, desaturated picture gives it the intensity of a war film, but the central tension isn't who lives or dies — though that too become a question later on! — but rather, how long the joke can keep evolving and folding in on itself without growing stale. The answer is 92 minutes, the length of time between opening and closing credit.

Where to begin? Perhaps the Lisa Frank-esque pink clouds that sparkle and envelop the football pitch whenever Diamantino approaches his opponents' goal post. While Diamantino's voiceover tells us of the religious reverence his father had for his talent — football stadiums aree the new renaissance cathedrals in the film's opening minutes, works of art scored by angelic voices — we see the giant Pomeranians that guide the football virtuoso to World Cup semi-final victory, bouncing around the pitch in order to comfort the pride of Portugal. This isn't just how Diamantino sees the world, but how he assumes everyone sees it.

A man smothered in privilege and self-image (his luxurious mansion is filled with pillows and blankets with his face on it), Diamantino has never had to look outside himself — that is, until he sees a raft full of African refugees from the deck of his private yacht on the eve of the World Cup final. Upon pulling them aboard and learning one of them lost her child at sea, Diamantino's world is shaken. Like Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha, who sees real suffering for the first time and sets off on his path to enlightenment, Diamantino's outlook is forever changed. Instead of the giant pups that assist him, he now begins seeing dead refugees, or "fugees" as he calls them (he's just learned what they even are) washing ashore onto the football field, distracting him enough to single handedly lose the World Cup.

Diamantino soon becomes the object of a nation's scorn. In the form of internet memes of course; this is an oddly effective, everything-contemporary-at-once mixture. His twin sisters hope to take advantage of his wealth by attempting to relaunch his career, but the footballer's newfound passion seems to be helping the world in the only way his celebrity-minded outlook will allow him: adopting a refugee child. Meanwhile (I should note that I'm still only setting up the premise), a same-sex couple working for an unnamed intelligence agency, presumably the C.I.A., investigates Diamantino for money-laundering via drone surveillance, and they decide to use his desire to adopt as a way to infiltrate his home. One poses as a nun while her partner, a black woman, poses as a young refugee boy from Mozambique. Diamantino, as naïve as he is innocent, doesn't know any better and takes the boy in.

As Diamantino's sisters grow frustrated with his lack of monetary initiative, they decide to tie up with Portugal's equivalent of a Brexit campaign, which hopes to sever the nation from the European Union, build a wall around its border to keep out refugees, and "make Portugal great again." This on-the-nose era of politics deserves on-the-nose analogies. The campaign's plan also involves meticulously mapping Diamantino's brain function to clone him and create a nation-uniting super team, but Diamantino is of below-average intelligence, making him utterly disastrous for their cloning project (which also has the side-effect of giving him breasts) but makes him absolutely perfect for an ad campaign in which he thinks he's just sword-playing with friends, rather than murdering people of colour as a propaganda tool.

Phew. Premise complete.

The father/son relationship at the center of the film — which, again, is really father/queer-woman-spy — has genuine warmth, surprising even the agent posing as Diamantino's child. The star's ignorance is destructive, allowing him to be conned into producing state propaganda, but his ignorance never mal-intended either, rightfully raising the question of how we as a society position celebrities, centering them as political tokens regardless of whether or not they have the tools to exist as such.

Cotto's Diamantino is as sweet and oblivious as they come, providing retrospective voiceover that, in any other film, would involve regret and the idea that he should have known better. But Diamantino, who keeps us locked in the lunacy of the present moment despite narrating from the future, seems incapable of knowing much at all. Much apart from his sport, that is; he doesn't just blow kisses to his "son" at night, but shuffles the phantom kiss like a football, bouncing it around on his shoulders before kicking it the agent's way, part and parcel of a greater sweetness that rightly makes her fall for him. Well, that and his insistence on making her waffles every day. His diet seems to consist only of waffles and Bongo Juice, which he hopes to share with everyone around him like an excited toddler on a playground.

Diamantino is a fundamentally Buddhist film, but it's also fundamentally absurd. Rather than any intellectual enlightenment, Diamantino's first exposure to suffering makes him seek spiritual fulfillment in the service of others, but his idea of doing good is myopic. Helping one refugee won't solve their whole crisis, especially when he's been roped into demonizing them, but the love he has for his son has a blinding purity. He's an imbecile, but an imbecile who cares deeply. Does that make him dangerous? Yes. Does it also make him a shining example of kindness? Absolutely, and those conflicting thoughts make every scene feel delightfully surreal. Then again, parsing them mid-viewing may not be a priority when the platter of intentional nonsense served by the film is so delectable.

Diamantino is idiotic cinema of the sincere. It speaks to the head-spinning era in which we find ourselves, hopping between genre tropes at break-neck speed in to capture the absurdity of the current political moment and how we engage with it. There's nothing else like it, which makes it a pitch-perfect addition to NYFF's Projections slate.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10